Arguably, there have been few springs in recent memory when many of us haven't planned to wring every bit of hedonistic pleasure from every holiday. The folks at La Palapa Grill & Cantina on Main Street in Ellicott City plan to cater to pleasure seekers over a multi-day fiesta built around Mexico's Independence Day, aka Cinco de Mayo.
Truth is, this particular Mexican restaurant has been hosting a continuous fiesta since it opened in 1999, joining its older sibling, Clarksville's El Azteca, and preceding its younger sisters in North Laurel, Silver Spring and Odenton.
But among the most appealing aspects of the Main Street location is that you can stroll along the sidewalks of this historic town, then step through La Palapa's doors and enjoy a multiroom eatery that charms almost as much as executive-chef/owner Gilberto Cortes' creative menu.
As you enter the restaurant, to the right is a spacious bar/dining area and to the left, a covered dining patio that's heated in the winter and fan-cooled in the summer.
The original dining room is a two-tier affair, with wood floors, wonderful old-brick walls, punched-tin star-shaped chandeliers suspended from high wood-beam ceilings (there are even a couple of pinatas), and colorful vinyl printed tablecloths. A strolling mariachi band stimulated our already festive mood on the Friday evening we visited.
Tradition and beyond
Gilberto Cortes' menu at El Azteca helped to set the standard for authentic Mexican food in the area by establishing a variety of creative sub-categories that took us way beyond tacos. Cortes' versions of such goodies as enchiladas, burritos, chimichangas, fajitas and more taught us the myriad nuances of this exciting and complex culinary style.
And these days, Cortes' cantinas take us well beyond standard combinations to more trendy dinner entrees that can demonstrate the nuances of South-of-the-Border regional cuisines.
Then, of course, there's the allure of daily and weekly specials, should you be in the market for a meal featuring something not included in the copious regular bill of fare.
Now, having waxed rhapsodic about the more "gourmet" (read: updated/upscale) aspects of La Palapa's current menu, I confess to having had a difficult time getting my guests to focus their dining choices on anything but what they have traditionally selected at Mexican restaurants over the years. So, of course, if we're playing the glad game, allow us to judge how we felt Cortes' kitchen handles the classics. The answer, by the way, is quite well indeed.
We went easy on the appetizers for a change. A complimentary salsa to accompany a greeting of fresh, crisp, non-homemade tortilla chips was somewhat chunky and evenly spiced. Chili con queso ($7.49), the Mexican cheese fondue, was mellow, melty, well-balanced and came in an ample serving. The guacamole ($7.50) was impeccably fresh, chunky and well-balanced. A larger portion would have been welcome.
For some, the first Mexican food they ever tried was probably chili (at least an American version) or tacos.
One of my companions has barely moved beyond tacos over the years — although tacos themselves have evolved most deliciously beyond those simple, long-ago ground-beef rolls. Thus, La Palapa's taco platter ($10.75) made a fine and filling main course starring crisp taco shells — you can also select soft tacos — most satisfyingly plumped with tender, moist, nicely spiced beef or chicken, each topped with fresh, crisp, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese and chunky pico de gallo salsa. Traditional sides included a credible Mexican rice and refried beans.
That same companion always tries the tamales, assuming a Mexican eatery has them, which is not always the case. This one ($4) was yummy — plump with chicken, it was tender, steamy and comforting.
A pair of poblano peppers, rather scantily stuffed with oozy cheeses that mellowed the medium-spiced roasted pepper, were up next. These were topped with a well-mannered ranchera sauce and more cheese as befits the stars of the chile relleno platter ($12.75). Featured in the vegetarian entree section, we liked that the stuffed peppers were accompanied by a tossed salad rather than refried beans, which are traditionally cooked with lard, plus more tomato-infused Mexican rice.
One of my guests was dieting, and chose the popular fajitas dish ($16/steak and chicken combo). There's no denying the appeal of sizzling, marinated, grilled meats that you can stuff into a warm, soft flour tortilla, then top with grilled-fresh, crisp-tender veggies. They were fragrant, yummy and seemingly ever-so-virtuous, with or without the chunky house-made pico de gallo that accompanies it.
A dozen more upscale items grace Cortes' "Specialties" menu section, among them, the evening we visited, two treatments for rainbow trout. One of my companions really wanted to try something different and so chose the Rainbow Trout Veracruz ($16.75). This more-than-ample piece of juicy, mild, perfectly cooked fish was smothered with a nicely textured, nicely balanced sauce of tomatoes, onions, olives and capers. It was different, yet somehow comforting. Rice and a small, fresh green salad came with it.
A festive venue for creative Mexican fare virtually any time of year, with friendly, efficient service and reasonable prices, La Palapa is sure to popular come Cinco de Mayo.
According to Simon Cortes, Gilberto's son and general manager, Cinco de Mayo festivities will last for four days, May 2 to 5. Special menus and music are being planned. Hours will be 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 a.m.
At the front of La Palapa on that weekend will be a dining tent set up to provide meals to raise funds for Voices for Children, a local organization that helps at-risk families and children. Portions of proceeds from other dining rooms will also benefit Voices for Children.
And if you want something more, Mother’s Day might be a good day to continue La Palapa festivities with their Sunday brunch.